Bringing Earmarks Back Won’t Fix Congress
Before the “Bridge to Nowhere” became a legislative cliché, there was the highway to Dennis Hastert’s farm.
Hastert was speaker of the House in 2005 when he secured a $207 million earmark, tucked into a $244 billion transportation funding package, to build the so-called “Prairie Parkway”—a proposed 33-mile highway through the exurbs west of Chicago that was ostensibly meant to connect two interstates. Hastert promised that it would ease traffic flows, and President George W. Bush described it as “crucial” for the fast-growing region’s economic fortunes when he signed the massive transportation bill into law during a visit to the area.
But there was another crucial quality to the Prairie Parkway. Plans called for it to pass within a few miles of nearly 300 acres of land that Hastert, his wife, and some business partners had purchased two years earlier. The tract had no easy access to roads when Hastert bought it, but as one of the most powerful politicians in the country, he was well-positioned to change that. A few months after the earmark was approved, Hastert and his partners sold their suddenly more-valuable land to a developer and pocketed millions of dollars in profit.
It’s a quaint scandal by contemporary standards, but the Hastert highway project is a useful example of the types of things that could, and did, happen when Congress used pork projects as political currency. It was wasteful. It was self-serving. It was opaque. Hastert didn’t disclose his financial interests in the project until the Chicago Tribune and the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group, called him on it. When Congress banned earmarks a few years later, it was to prevent exactly this type of abuse.
On the other hand, Congress did pass a major transportation bill in 2005. That’s a quaint notion too.
Earmarks are set for a possible renaissance in 2021, as Democratic leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives suggest that a return to pork-barrel politics could be a way to break gridlock in Washington and allow Congress to do big things again. Maybe it could even pass a real budget for the first time in years.
Some now see the demise of earmarks, a major reform championed by the early Tea Party Republicans of a decade ago, as a misstep that has weakened congressional leaders’ ability to coerce support from the rank and file and contributed to Congress’ impotence and dysfunction.
But while abolishing earmarks hasn’t stopped wasteful government spending or shrunk the federal budget, bringing them back won’t accomplish those things, either. Earmarks are unlikely to do much to soften the hardening partisan lines or restore Washington to the supposed glory days when legislators could agree to act in the country’s best interests, as long as there was a little something in it for them.
If the price for getting more legislation out of Congress is increased waste and the potential for more corruption, we should prefer to get less legislation.
Earmarks as Bribery
In October, the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, a bipartisan 12-member commission, published a unanimous list of 97 recommendations for improving America’s national legislative body. Among them was a call to resurrect earmarks, an idea that has already gained some traction.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D–Md.) told Roll Call in November that he’d favor bringing earmarks back with certain transparency and accountability reforms, such as those suggested by the select committee. The new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D–Conn.), also supports a return for earmarks.
Congress has been operating without earmarks since February 2011, when House Republicans banned their inclusion in spending bills. The Senate has since implemented its own ban as well. That’s long enough that many Americans might not remember how completely out of control the congressional earmark situation had become by the mid-2000s. The 2005 transportation bill that included Hastert’s highway contained more than 6,300 items of “congressionally directed spending.” At the time, fiscal conservatives had urged Bush to veto the bill, noting that President Ronald Reagan had vetoed a similar bill in 1987 for having about 150 earmarks.
Thomas Schatz hasn’t forgotten. As the president of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the co-author of the group’s annual Congressional Pig Book, Schatz has been chronicling wasteful government spending since 1991.
One of the most egregious examples was $500,000 appropriated to refurbish entertainer Lawrence Welk’s childhood home in Strasburg, North Dakota, a town of about 500 people. Another half-million dollars was dropped on a planned teapot museum in Sparta, North Carolina. It was envisioned as a somewhat bizarre roadside attraction that would display the nearly 17,000 teapots amassed in a private collection. The intention was to lure passing tourists to the economically depressed town.
“We got $500,000 out of $29 billion,” then–Mayor John Miller told the Los Angeles Times in 2006, shortly after the teapot museum was featured in the Pig Book. “We don’t think we broke anybody. The museum will bring more people to town. It will be a big boon if we can get it going.”
They never did. Despite the federal earmarks and another infusion of $400,000 from the state, the museum remains unfinished today.
Two of Schatz’s favorite examples of outlandish pork projects are connected to Alaska and two longtime lawmakers who earned reputations for bringing home the bacon.
The first was a $25 million grant to the University of Alaska to study how to trap energy from the aurora borealis. It was awarded at the behest of the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R–Alaska) in 1993. At the time, he told The Washington Post that the northern lights contain “more energy than there is in the whole United States. Is it possible for mankind to think of using that energy? I don’t think we should abandon the thought.” So taxpayers paid for it.
“It reminded me of a bad Jules Verne novel,” says Schatz. Stevens was one of the most effective porkers in Washington during his long Senate career, which ended in 2009. Between 1991 and his retirement, he brought home more than $1 billion in earmarks, according to CAGW data. He also fought to block earmark transparency measures passed by Congress in 2006 after the Hastert highway scandal.
Like Stevens, Rep. Don Young (R–Alaska), who has been the state’s lone congressman since 1973, has an impressive pork-hauling record. He has also been an outspoken critic of the earmark ban. That’s unsurprising, since Young was the point man on the infamous Bridge to Nowhere—probably the pork project most responsible for getting earmarks banned.
The proposed bridge would have replaced a ferry that connects the small community of Ketchikan, Alaska, to its airport. The $223 million earmark, which was approved in 2005, exploded into national politics during the 2008 presidential campaign when then–Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin framed the project as an example of Washington waste, even though she had previously supported the project.
The Bridge to Nowhere, the Hastert
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